Any objections that he may have to prospective Phoenix Coyotes' owner Jim Balsillie "are not personal," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Saturday, in his annual state of the union address.
Speaking to reporters prior to tonight's first game of the Stanley Cup final, Bettman painted a mostly rosy picture of NHL health, suggesting the league has held its own financially, despite the economic recession in North America, selling out more than 100 per cent of playoff games and getting season-ticket renewals in the 80-per cent range, a strong number for the final week of May.
In a 15-minute preamble that was followed by a 19-minute question-and-answer session, Bettman also called for stricter testing for performance enhancing drugs; predicted the salary cap for the 2009-10 season would be either flat or down five per cent; and opened the door just a crack to the possibility a second team in Toronto, saying it may in time be "something we have to take a look at."
However, Bettman spent much of his time addressing the financial plight of the Coyotes and the fact that a bankruptcy judge in Phoenix could decide its future at a June 9 hearing.
"The (Coyotes) team was never in jeopardy," asserted Bettman. "It was literally 20 minutes away from being fixed in a way that we thought was going to work quite well - and it's my view that the Coyotes should not be in bankruptcy."
Bettman's reference was to an offer that Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf had cobbled together, with NHL assistance, to buy the Coyotes from owner Jerry Moyes. Instead, Moyes agreed to a $212.5 million offer from Balsillie, the Waterloo-based RIM magnate that was contingent upon the franchise shifting to Hamilton for the start of next season.
Bettman cited the Pittsburgh Penguins as an example of a team that was once in dire financial shape, but was eventually turned around in its own market.
"We didn't walk out on Pittsburgh," said Bettman. "We fought to fix their problems - and we're fighting with everything that's going on for Phoenix, because of our covenant with the team and the fans there.
"The issue here is league rules and leagues processes and procedures, which is why it's pretty significant to note that the National Football League, Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association have all appeared in bankruptcy court and made it clear that this is a profound issue for all sports leagues.
"This is not just an NHL issue. This is not a Canada versus U.S. issue. This is not a Phoenix versus Hamilton issue. And this is certainly not a personal issue. Any notion to the contrary is simply off the mark."
Asked if he could ever imagine a scenario under which Balsillie, who has previously failed in attempts to buy the Penguins and the Nashville Predators, is admitted to the NHL as an owner, Bettman answered that it is not up to him to decide. Instead, it would be a matter for the board of governors to determine.
"The two most important issues for any sports league are, who's an owner, who's a partner in the league; and where franchises are located," said Bettman. "Ultimately, it's up to the governors who will have to review the things that come before them - if they come before them - and make that determination."
So on Balsillie's candidacy as an owner … yes? No? Maybe?
"Again, I don't want to make this sound personal about Jim, because Jim is not the issue. At the end of the day, the owners - if they get to that point - are going to have to review him as a potential partner in the league. And whether or not they have questions about how he might be as a partner is something that they'll have to raise with him at the time."
Bettman, who has generally dismissed the notion of a possible second team in Toronto previously, opened the door slightly to that possibility, when the matter was raised in a follow-up question.
"If we're going to either relocate a franchise, which I'm hoping we're not going to be doing, or we decide expand, if there is a suitable ownership and a suitable arena situation (in Toronto), then it's something we're going to have to take a look at."
When asked why he painted such a positive portrait of Phoenix's financial health earlier this season when court documents relating to the team's bankruptcy proceedings tell a different story, Bettman said that his position had been mischaracterized.
"First of all, I know there have been suggestions that either Bill (Daly, the NHL's deputy commissioner) or I have been optimistic," said Bettman. "That was not the case. What we've always responded to is the notion that the club was not in any jeopardy. The club's losses are comparable to what they've been. The city of Glendale is prepared to work with the club in terms of building arrangements. We believe there are buyers out there, willing to step up and invest and make it work.
"This is a club that needs new ownership, a change in management, and needs to perform better than it has. As long as there are people prepared to do that, we think the prospects can be optimistic - and should be. At least some of the people I've spoken to believe it can be turned around - and turned around rather quickly - by doing a lot of the right things that haven't been done."